Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Newspaper images, words exacerbate Baltimore unrest
Analysis of day-after newspaper coverage of the unrest in Baltimore on Monday, Apr. 27 shows that images and words used too often exacerbated the tense situation there.

A mini-study was conducted of 10 leading newspaper front pages from the NY Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Seattle Times, Kansas City Star, and Boston Globe. The study analyzed the picture(s) and the headlines and sub-heads used on the front pages.

In terms of visuals, the most commonly used photo was one of a gas-mask wearing protester with his fist defiantly raised. This was used in the Baltimore Sun, and two of the other newspapers. Three of 10 front pages featured burning vehicles (St. Louis Post Dispatch).  

Were these photos inflammatory (no pun intended)? As peace journalists, the question we ask is, does the image exacerbate the situation—create more divisions within society, stoke racism and hatred? By this litmus test, it’s hard to see the shot of the defiant, gas-masked, fist raising rioter as anything but inflammatory, playing on the emotions and fears of the white community.
The vehicle burning shots exacerbate the situation to a much lesser extent, since they essentially parrot what was seen for hours on TV Monday night. However, the burning shots do misrepresent and exaggerate what happened. (After all, how many cars, total, were burned? Was it half the cars in Baltimore, as the coverage would have us believe?) 

Several other photos were each used twice. One is a shot of police carrying off an injured comrade (Washington Post, for example). Is this photo designed to elicit sympathy for police officers? (Not that we shouldn’t have sympathy for officers, or for anyone else in Baltimore.) A final photo used twice on these 10 front pages is a shot of a police officer throwing something at protesters (a smaller photo in the St. Louis paper). This shot is also a misrepresentation. There were hundreds of cops on the ground. How many threw objects at protesters?

Of the 10 front pages, only two—The Seattle Times and Baltimore Sun (in a smaller picture)—displayed a prominent picture of peaceful protesters. These peaceful protesters, by everyone’s account, far outnumbered the rioters. Yet, there are represented on the front pages of only two major newspapers in the study.

In terms of language used in the headlines and sub-heads, a peace journalist always carefully considers word choice, seeking words that are accurate but not inflammatory or sensational. The most frequently used word was riot/rioting, shown on four of these front pages. There’s nothing wrong per se with this word, although it tells only part of the story. A peace journalist might also use the word rioting, but be careful not to omit the word protesters, or peaceful, or justice. Two of the head/sub-heads used the word violence, which is an accurate descriptor of what happened.
Two papers (including the Baltimore Sun) used the word looting. By itself, this isn’t inaccurate, although like the word riot, it reveals only one aspect of a more complex story.

It was a pleasant surprise that none of the 10 major dailies in the mini-study used the words bloody, burns, or burning in their headline. (Of course, it didn’t take long to find the sensational headline “Baltimore Burning” in the New York Post, but this should come as no surprise. BTW, on the bottom of page one on the same day, a sub-head in the Post screams, “Why I killed Jeffrey Dahmer!”).

When covering civic unrest, daily newspapers, broadcast journalists, and social media outlets should utilize the principles of peace journalism, especially peace journalism's admonition to consider the consequences of one's reporting.

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